Skip to main content

260. Competing for the Albanian Soul: Are Islamic Missionaries Making Another Lebanon in the Balkans?

"Albanians have been Muslims for more than 500 years and they do not need outsiders [Arabs] to tell them what is the proper way to practice Islam."
- Rexhep Boja, Mufti of Kosova

Rexhep Boja's recent retort to Arab "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) efforts to impose their literalist (Wahabbi/Salafi) interpretation of Islamic tradition in Kosova reflects a largely ignored phenomenon in the post-Communist Balkans. While most of the international organizations (UN, OSCE etc.) and governments who fund them have ignored the needs of the victims of Communism to rebuild their shattered spiritual lives, a significant combination of forces have converged on the region, instigating a "Lebanonization" of the Balkans. Understanding the process of social fragmentation in multi-faith societies requires a greater appreciation for the destructive effects of outside influences.

The reason behind initiating this discussion on the impact of missionary activities in the Albanian-speaking regions of the Balkans is not to isolate Islam as a unique source of concern for Western governments. Rather, I am hoping to draw attention to the questionable manner in which Western powers have compartmentalized their priorities in the region, resulting in the neglect of tens of thousands of materially destitute human beings. Islam is just the most visible component of a much larger phenomenon in the developing world. The problem lies with how Western policies have left "ethno-religious" communities (i.e. Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics) at the mercy of international, "faith-based" organizations who shamelessly exploit the poverty and fragmented social conditions of, in this case, Albanians, in order to gain an influential foothold in largely rural communities. My conclusions at this time are that Arab and Turkish organizations (as well as US evangelical and Greek Orthodox proselytizing groups) are quickly creating an environment of religious and cultural intolerance in a society that historically has been uniquely diverse in its sectarian proclivities. The results of these changes are predictable.

Albanians often state that their faith was never the determining factor in defining their identity. Albanians assumed they shared a common cultural, political and, ultimately, spiritual place vis-à-vis the outside world that transcended their sectarian differences. Despite this encompassing viewpoint, Albanians today are widely considered "Muslims" and part of the "Islamic world" in the most general of terms. While on a statistical basis this may be true, identifying Albanians as "Muslim" does not help us appreciate how Albanians have attempted to interact with the outside world. Even more importantly, it has proven misleading to assume that events taking place in other parts of the vast and diverse "Islamic" world had any immediate significance in the Albanian-speaking world. Simply put, what accounts for the regional distinctions between the many ways in which Albanian-speakers practice their various faiths has rarely been considered worthy of consideration. This neglect may prove over the next ten years to be fatal to any hope of long term stability in the region.

Totalitarian rule in Albania has left a legacy of economic deprivation and state violence against the practice of Islam. Such experiences have driven people in Albania over the last decade to escape their homeland for Greece or Italy. More dramatically still, in Macedonia and Kosova, the use of the state's military to repress basic cultural and political rights over the past eighty years has directly affected how Albanians in the former Yugoslavia (up to 2.7 million of them) practice their faith today. I emphasize the legacy of the Communist era in particular (and the recent wars in Kosova and Macedonia) in order to demonstrate that the realities for today's Albanian Muslims are fraught with uncertainty, contradiction and a sense of powerlessness – all of which are being mercilessly exploited by outside interests. That such exploitation is occurring under the noses of western governments is of particular concern – it demonstrates an almost criminal amount of naiveté and ineptitude in the policy-making community.

Scholars of Central Asia and Eastern Europe have been monitoring the activities of American Evangelicals for years and have reported the destabilizing influence they have on local communities. Arab Muslim missionaries have flooded the gates of the fallen Communist empire with the same determination as their fundamentalist Christian counterparts. However, scholars and policy-makers have largely ignored the activities of these wealthy Muslim organizations. This must change, as became perfectly clear on the morning of September 11, 2001.

A recent report to the Pentagon by a Rand Corporation researcher caused a bit of diplomatic discomfort in Washington DC when it was suggested that the biggest single threat to American interests and long-term security came from within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The conclusion, while sensationalist in its final recommendations, based its core argument around the activities of Saudi-based, and often Saudi-funded, missionary/humanitarian aid organizations that have spread around the world since the fall of the Soviet Union.

It has taken many years, but the Koranic schools in Pakistan that produced the radical Taliban movement in the late 1980s have finally attracted the attention of outsiders. Far too little has been done to appreciate the social, political and, most importantly, economic context of these schools throughout the world. This is especially true in the Balkans, where the attempts by these extremists to impose a very different brand of Islam have been until recently, successfully resisted. While small numbers of Albanians from the former Yugoslavia did go to study Islamic theology in the Arabic-speaking world, (many to study under the now deceased Albanian-born scholar, Nasir al Din al-Albani) the vast majority of Albanians had no cultural contact with the larger Islamic world. The recent influence from the outside, with their substantial aid packages, however, has changed this. The nature of this change is creating an environment that pits local organizations trying to maintain local Islamic tradition – as personified by Rexhep Boja – against those influenced by imported traditions. The problem is that local organizations do not have the financial resources to address the glaring material and spiritual needs of their constituents. As a consequence, older Albanians and their tradition of tolerance have been slowly sidelined in the day-to-day development of the Albanian spiritual world, as outsiders focus their "assistance" on the spiritually malleable youth.

Out of what many believed to be a spiritual wasteland, donor organizations flooded Albania and Kosova with their Dollars, Drachmas and Riyals and began a process of institutional rivalry that is having damaging effects on the Albanian world. Among Albanian-speaking Muslims, the issues are particularly important as much of their self-perceived place in the world is now dominated by what they see as anti-Muslim sentiments directed at them. The sense of being unwanted by Europe, the sense of being persecuted and indeed, blamed by Americans for events taking place in other parts of the globe is a common theme among self-identified Muslims today and is being used in some quarters to shift community loyalty. As European, US and non-denomination organizations continue to ignore the spiritual, educational and cultural needs of local populations there is a sense of increasing isolationism that breeds the kind of resentment used to produce a new generation of supporters of anti-Western causes. With more than 98 primary and secondary schools built by outside Muslim groups throughout rural Kosova, the creation of a new generation of Albanian Muslim is underway. As the outside world has given free reign to Saudi-based organizations to set up orphanages, mosques and schools, the results in the isolated regions of Kosova are already evident.

There is also another particularly important animating factor here that is similarly ignored by the organizations mandated to administer the lives of Albanians: the aggressive proselytizing of Greek Orthodox and American Evangelical groups in various parts of the Albanian-speaking world. Again, much as international organizations have conceded the responsibility of educating the youth to each religious community, well-funded and diplomatically protected Greek Orthodox and American Evangelical groups have, in the words of local moderate Muslims, "raided" traditionally Muslim communities. While many continue to resist the sectarian implications of these activities, others concede that the arrival of these organizations are creating internal conflicts, drawing people with promises of money, jobs, education and indeed a new identity.

A number of illuminating incidents that have pitted Saudi, Greek Orthodox and Evangelical organizations and local Muslim community leaders against each other make the point that local proclivities are not those of outside organizations. These differences are slowly being eroded however. The genuine love local Albanians feel for Americans for instance, is slowly being destroyed by the effects of Arab proselytizing strategies, in particular, among the youth whose family structures were devastated by Communism and war. Unless immediate attention is paid to provide an alternative for rural communities in Kosova, Macedonia and Albania, the spectacle of outside powers manipulating internal sectarian differences – as in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s – is a distinct possibility. It would be yet another tragic demonstration of Western shortsightedness if its failure to provide a few million dollars to rebuild the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings would result in decades of conflict and instability.

Two hundred years ago, it was the Albanian ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali of Kavala who defeated the spread of Wahabbism in Western Arabia during his campaign of 1811-1818. Today it is the Wahabbis who are asserting their control over Albanian souls. The difference today is that it is economic destitution that has provided the pretext for invasion. Tragically, this is an invasion that is made possible by the very neglect of the secular, wealthy Western nations to address the basic needs of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Europeans. The economic stinginess and the cultural chauvinism that produces this neglect may come back to haunt Europe, ending any illusion that things have been made right in the Balkans.

Isa Blumi spoke at an EES noon discussion on September 25, 2002. The above is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report #260.


About the Author

Isa Blumi

Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar;
PhD Candidate, Departments of History and Middle Eastern Studies, New York University
Read More

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. It does this through scholars-in-residence, seminars, policy study groups, media commentary, international conferences and publications. Activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The program investigates European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including globalization, digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance, and relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.  Read more